Empress by Shan Sa - Read Online
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Such is the voice of Shan Sa's unforgettable heroine in her latest literary masterpiece, Empress. Empress Wu, one of China's most controversial figures, was its first and only female emperor, who emerged in the seventh century during the great Tang Dynasty and ushered in a golden age. Throughout history, her name has been defamed and her story distorted by those taking vengeance on a woman who dared to become emperor. But now, for the first time in thirteen centuries, Empress Wu (or Heavenlight, as we come to know her) flings open the gates of the Forbidden City and tells her own astonishing tale—revealing a fascinating, complex figure who in many ways remains modern to this day.

Writing with epic assurance, poetry, and vivid historic detail, Shan Sa plumbs the psychological and philosophical depths of what it means to be a striving mortal in a tumultuous, power-hungry world. Empress is a great literary feat and a revelation for the ages.

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061983139
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Empress - Shan Sa

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Endless moons, an opaque universe, thunder, tornadoes, the quaking earth. Rare moments of peace; forehead up against my knees, arms around my head, I thought, I listened, I longed not to exist. But life was there, a transparent pearl, a star revolving slowly on its own axis. I was blind. My eyes stared into that other world, that other existence that dwindled a little every day. Its colors were extinguished, its images blurred. I was still left with cries of astonishment and feeble sobbing. I was oppressed by the impotence of these vague recollections, burned by their melancholy. Who am I? I asked Death as it crouched at my feet. Death moaned and gave no reply.

Where am I? I could hear laughter, voices saying, It will surely be a boy, my Lord. He is moving. He is full of life.

It mattered little who I would be. I was already weary of this vastness. I was weary of hoping, of waiting, of being myself—the center of the world.

I was soothed by the rustle of the wind. I listened to the trickle of rain. Across my sky in which the sun never rose, I could hear a little girl singing. I was lulled by her gentle, innocent voice. My sister, I foresaw great sorrow for her. A hand tried to caress me. But a wall lay between us. Oh Mother, the shadow outlined against the screen of my thoughts, do you realize I am already old, condemned to live within the prison of your flesh?

IN THE DEPTHS of the lake, in the sepia-colored waters, I swiveled round, curled up into a ball, spread my limbs, turned circles. Day by day my body grew, weighing heavily on me, strangling me. I would have liked to be the prick of a needle, a grain of sand, the flash of sunlight in a drop of water; I was becoming flesh, an exploding flesh, a mountain of folds and blood, a marine monster. One breath raised me up and rocked me. I was irascible. I was furious with myself, with the woman who was my jailor, with Death—my only friend.

They waited for me. I heard someone whisper that the boy would be called Heavenlight. The rustle of preparations hampered my meditation. They spoke of clothes, celebrations, wet nurses: plump, white, and sturdy. They were forbidden to speak my name, for fear that demons would possess my soul. They were waiting for me to pick up where their own destinies had left off. I felt pity for these fervent creatures, so affable and eager. They did not yet know that I would destroy their world to build my own. They did not know that I would bring deliverance—but with fire and ice.

One night I awoke with a start. The waters were seething. Furious waves broke over me. I held myself tightly, struggling with my fear and concentrating on my breathing, on my gnawing pain. When the tide surged, I was launched into a narrow opening. I slid between the rocks. My body bled. My skin tore. My head imploded. I balled my fists to stop myself from screaming.

Someone pulled me by my feet and slapped my buttocks. With my head hanging down, my cries spewed from me. I was wrapped in a cloth that flayed me. I heard a man’s anxious voice: Boy or girl?

No one replied. The man grabbed me and tried to tear open my swaddling.

He was interrupted by a woman’s quiet wail:

Another girl, my Lord.

Ah! he cried before dissolving in tears.

A dozen women watched over me as I grew. Three wet nurses took turns quenching my thirst. My appetite was frightening. I was already laughing. My eyes were great black pearls rolling in their sockets. I looked on the world day and night, never wanting to sleep. My mother was worried by my constant agitation; she called on a number of exorcist monks. But no one succeeded in expelling the demon from me.

I eventually grew weary of their fears. Behind the gauze of my mosquito net, I pretended to sleep to have some peace, while a woman sang as she rocked my cradle. Another waved a fan to waft away the odd fly that had strayed into the perfumed universe. With my eyelids closed, I let my thoughts fly away.

The kingdom that Father ruled as absolute master was divided into two parts. The Front Quarter was reserved for men. Stewards, secretaries, accountants, cooks, pages, valets, grooms, guards, and lackeys busied themselves from the first light of dawn. Government officials took their orders and set off on horseback. Troops of soldiers undertook training exercises all day long in the great courtyard to the side. This virile world ended before the vermillion gate where the gynaeceum began. Behind the high, snow-colored wall lived hundreds of women: old, young, and little girls. They wore their hair in topknots pinned with flowers and had jade rings threaded into their silk belts. It was the eighth year of Martial Virtue;¹ fashion favored the pallor of early spring: dresses were crocus yellow, the soft green of narcissus leaves, the pleasing pink of cherry blossom, and the crimson of the sun reflected in a lake. Sweepers, servants, seamstresses, embroiderers, bearers, wet nurses, cooks, governesses, stewards, gracious attendants, singers, dancers…all of them moved slowly, with composure, and spoke in hushed tones. They rose at dawn, bathed at dusk. They were the flowers of my father’s garden, blossoming to compete with the beauty of one person alone.

Mother dressed soberly. Her least little cough was a command, her every gaze an order. She was naturally elegant. Fashion changed, a flitting butterfly, Mother maintained an eternal springtime. She was of the Yang clan from the Hong Nong region; one of the thirty most noble families in the Empire. As a daughter, niece, and sister to eminent ministers, a cousin to imperial brides, and a close relation to the Emperor and the princesses, Mother wore her dignity like a jewel, a cloak, a crown. She gave alms in the monasteries and distributed food to beggars. She was a fervent Buddhist, observing a vegetarian diet and showing no interest in the turmoil of this lowly world. She copied out the sutras in her careful hand and dreamed of reaching the land of Extreme Joy, the kingdom of Buddha Amida, He who launches countless rays of light.

Mother was cold, delicate, soothing. Her gentleness was cutting and opaque and reminded me of the jade disc that hung over my cradle. I wanted her. I grew agitated waiting. She would appear from time to time after several days’ absence. When she arrived, her long silk train and her endless muslin shawl set the curtains to my room aquiver. The ground kissed by her slippered feet whispered with pleasure. Her perfume went before her. It smelled of sunlight, snow, the East Wind, flowers laden with happiness.

She never took me in her arms, happy to contemplate me from a distance. My eyes consumed her hungrily. Her lips were two scarlet petals. Her face was as perfectly smooth as a mirror. Beneath her eyebrows, which had been shaved and redrawn in the shape of cicada wings, her eyes betrayed her disappointment. She had desired a boy.

THE POMEGRANATE TREES exploded into blossom and the summer arrived. My one hundredth day was grounds for a celebration. Mother had the pavilion in the middle of the lake opened up and gathered together her noble friends and relations for a sumptuous banquet.

In that room surrounded by the glittering water, I was passed from hand to hand. I was stroked and petted. Servants came up the steps to lay down gifts. One lady offered me a pair of emerald bracelets—she was convinced that my sparkling black eyes were a sign of intelligence. Another had nine gold ingots brought on a silver tray, saying that my wide forehead was an omen: I had been placed under the sign of a wealthy and happy marriage. Another bedecked me with nine rolls of brocade—she said that my straight nose, my chubby cheeks, and my round mouth foretold exceptional fertility: I would have many sons.

Mother was happy. With a nod of her head, she ordered for a carpet of silk to be unrolled in the middle of the banquet, for me to be freed of my swaddling and to be seated. The servants laid a dozen objects out around me. I forgot this gathering of pale women in all their finery, caught hold of an ice-cold toy and tried to lift it. There was a general murmuring and one woman said: She chooses neither the makeup box of Beauty, nor the jade of Nobility, nor the flute of Music, nor the book of Wisdom, nor the quill of Poetry, nor the abacus of Commerce, nor the rosary of Spirituality. My dear cousin, your daughter’s future will be singularly unusual. It is truly a shame that she is not a boy.

Indeed, your Highness, it is a great shame, agreed another.

Ah well, we must not let this distress us, exclaimed a sonorous voice, ringing with pride. In our time women can demonstrate prowess in a thousand ways. Long ago the great Princess Sun of Ping fought for her father, the August Sovereign. At her funeral, His Majesty called for the trumpets and drums to be sounded, an honor reserved for men. Your daughter has a curved forehead to accept the celestial breath, she has luminous eyes, a strong jaw, generous lips; she has touched of her father’s sword. Excellent! My dear, from this day you must dress her as a boy. Give her an education worthy of her own determination. The daughter of a general likes commandment. I can see her as the mistress of a noble warrior household!

Soon I felt the need to venture out into the world rather than receiving it from my cradle. Unable to stand upright on my feet, I crawled. One step toward the unknown meant coordinating all my muscles. Pinning my eyes on an object, keeping my ears alert and my mouth open to roar silently, I raised an arm, a leg, I crawled my way through the universe.

A bearded man leaned toward me. He was wrapped in a silk coat lined with sable, and seemed to have come from far, far away. When I saw him, I heard the thundering of hooves, the wailing of the wind, the unbridled moans of the courtesans. The bestial smell of him made me shiver. His gruff kisses tore my cheek.

There was a little girl watching me. I was fascinated by her pink complexion, fine features, sturdy legs, dark eyes, and the wooden duck she trailed behind her. After looking carefully up and down, she put a finger in my hand, and I squeezed it until she flushed red and began to cry. You must not hurt your sister, my wet nurse told me. She did not know that later, as she had in those days of innocence, Elder Sister would beg me to be her torturer.

In the ninth year of Martial Virtue, the Emperor abdicated in favor of his son. Twelve moons later, the new sovereign recalled Father from the noble province of Yang where he had been sent on a quest, and named him Governor Delegate of the province of Li where an insurrection under Prince Li Xiao Chang had just been repressed.

I was two years old. I stumbled around among the wooden cases and the carriages covered in oiled drapes, unaware of the suffering of a father exiled from Court. The horses and the oxen trod the endless road that dissolved into the horizon. I devoured the world through an opening in the carriage door. Outside, the colors jostled and furrowed, spreading out and contorting. We shall see each other again, Long Peace, my native town!

The wheels’ rattles over the stony track kept me awake. We crossed a vast plain where the arid soil had been cracked and crazed by the sun. Hordes of children in rags came and prostrated themselves as we passed by. I was astonished that such thin, dirty creatures existed at all. Mother asked for food to be handed out to them: biscuits, bread, and rice meal, which they swallowed while it was still scalding hot.

I was tormented by questions. I kept asking them all day long: What is hunger? Why do the fields need to be cultivated? What is wheat? How is bread made?

After a month of traveling, the caravan embarked into the misty mountains. The track was carved into the cliffs and, further down, the Jia Ling river roared as it hurled itself against the tormented rocks. Forts rose up from the peaks; military outposts opened their barriers for us. The imperial soldiers were brutish men who drank from chipped bowls and ate haunches of beef with their bare hands. In the evenings, around the camp fires, they beat their drums and sang. The moon rose, and I fell asleep listening to the roar of tigers. When the first hint of dawn appeared, birds launched themselves in pursuit of the sun, while monkeys fled the light, screeching as they swung from one strand of creeper to the next. Why is the sky going red? Why are the trees so still? Why do the boatmen slash their own faces? Streaming with blood, they raised anchor and threw themselves into the torrents.

I HUNG THE birdcages under the awnings. The robins, orioles, and canaries started to sing. I let the ducks out onto the pond, the cranes into the long grass, and the peacocks into the camellia bushes. Inside our new home, the furniture was taking root, the curtains were growing, and the cats and dogs scrapped over their territory.

Nurse dressed me as a Tartar boy. In my blue turban, leather boots, and emerald-green tunic with its fitted sleeves and cuffs embroidered in gold thread, I tottered like a drunken man, bellowing military songs.

Four years old, the age of diamonds. Free. There, with my arms in the air, I could fly. The new garden was a vast expanse of parkland, a whole continent. The summer was on its way: the hills oozed, the sky evaporated, life slowed down. I crouched down and watched the caravans of ants at the foot of trees. I shook off my servants by running through the bamboo forests. In the evenings, I would refuse to sleep and asked questions till the early hours: Why does the frog have such a fat belly? Why do mosquitoes flee the herbs burning in bowls? Who do the stars play hide-and-seek with? Why is the moon sometimes round and sometimes thin? Who are the fireflies bearing their tiny lanterns for?

Mother was afraid of my capacity to think. She called for a wandering monk known for the truth of his predictions. The man assured her there was absolutely no evil in my soul, praised my intelligence, and decreed that I had a spiritual vocation.

In the fourth year of Pure Contemplation, maternal Grandmother left this world. Mother asked me whether I would like to be the family delegate to observe mourning in a monastery and to pray for the salvation of the honorable deceased. I was five years old. I accepted the suggestion with joy: Father was my idol, so the word delegate filled my heart with pride, and I would at last have the same degree of importance as the governor of six districts and forty thousand souls.

The river flowed at the foot of the fortified town. The torrents propelled sailing boats toward the skies. From the harbor we could see the mountain of the Black Dragon. Along its sheer cliffs thousands of pavilions sheltered the entrances to Buddhist caves filled with statues and decorated with frescoes. After the boat crossing, I was carried on a servant woman’s back up the steep steps and over the bridge of plaited rope that swung across the middle of the valley. I was engulfed by the Monastery of Pure Compassion, which hung between the earth and the sky.

I LOST MY family name and my own name, I was now known as Light of Emptiness. I did not even know how to untie my belt. I would wake in the night calling for my wet nurses. I missed their breasts. I would finger my bedclothes and suck on my blanket, but in these I found neither the satin of their skin nor the wrinkles of their nipples and I wept.

Mother did not come to see me. She had abandoned me to Buddha. Every day I watched and waited for a familiar face at the entrance to the monastery. On that gently rising path, the leaves fell with the dusk.

This monastery, which was famous throughout southern China, bustled with more than one thousand nuns. Pure Intelligence was responsible for my education. She was twenty, her muscled body smelled of green tea, and her impeccably shaved head was velvety soft as a white lotus. She gave me my bath, scrubbing my big tummy and my thin legs. She answered my questions and introduced me to reading. She taught me how to wash my face, dress, fold my blanket, and sing the songs of her homeland.

I swept the courtyard, shuffling back and forth with a bamboo broom taller than myself. I climbed onto the altars and dusted the faces of Buddhas and celestial kings. I crouched beside a waterfall and beat my clothes clean with a large pebble. I busied myself with the old women. For some of them, who were simply tired, I arranged their cushions and fetched pails; for others, who were already loosing their minds, I acted as a prompt for their memories. In the mornings, begging bowl in hand, I seduced rich visitors and made them open their purses. In the evening, after all the lights had been put out, I put on great performances at everyone’s request: acting out the scenes I had witnessed during the day; I played wealthy, worldly townswomen as well as our obsequious superiors and an exasperated Buddha. I could hear their laughter and compliments buzzing from beneath their blankets. I savored this glory, but feigned modesty.

My greatest friend was called Law of Emptiness. She was a white goat who followed me everywhere in my feverish activities. When I wandered into a temple, I would tell her about the life of Prince Siddhartha and the wonders of the Pure World. Deep in the forest, I would take a twig from a tree and give her writing lessons. When I was thirsty, I would slip between her legs, and she would offer me her udder full of milk.

Were you sent by Buddha to watch over me? I asked her. In her golden eyes, Law of Emptiness had all the goodness that was lacking in humans. Her curly coat was a parchment scribbled with ineffable words. Her hooves, like cloven rocks, trampled over the history of the world. One day I fell asleep at the foot of a statue of Bodhisattva. She woke me by licking my face: darkness was creeping over the sky, and I was late for evening prayer. As I sat up I saw the twinkle of a smile on her muzzle.

Law of Emptiness, are you an incarnation of Buddha?

My family home disappeared like a dream.

The mountains seemed to breathe. The mountains were sad; the mountains were happy. The mountains flaunted their furry coats of snow, their brocade robes, their sumptuous and extravagant cloaks of mist. The sky opened up vertically when dusk fell, all ochre, yellow and black. When evening came up from the valleys, the heavenly bodies revealed themselves. I would lie down in the long grasses: red, blue, green, sparkling, evanescent. Every star was a mysterious writing on the sacred book of the sky. Seasons passed, clouds drifted away and never came back. On the other side of the valley, hanging from ropes in the void in front of a cliff face, workmen sculpted day and night. I was told that an imperial donation had been made to create the largest Buddha on Earth.

The moon waxed and waned. The days, those tiny dots and circles, changed into a flowing script whose meaning was now lost. I understood the passage of time by watching the Buddha gradually materializing under those iron picks. Gentle eyes, a mysterious smile, drooping ear lobes, the mountain revealed his face. The cliff lost its sheer exterior, and his body appeared. His draped robes started to flutter in the wind. Birds wheeled around his knees with terrified cries. His ankles came away from the rock. The curve of his toenails emerged. I was mute with awe: Divinity had risen from nothingness!

One morning, in the reception hall, I found Mother and her retinue. She had gained weight; her breasts bulged. I was dazzled by her carefully applied makeup, her hair piled high on her head, and her embroidered gown. She told me that Father had been named Governor Delegate of the distant province of Jing and asked whether I would like to go with him or stay in the monastery.

My feeling of joy shattered: She made it clear that if I left, I would never see the mountains again, and if I stayed, I would lose my family forever. That same evening the monastery shook in the grips of a violent storm; the thunder roared, and the earth trembled. A tree just outside our sleeping quarters was struck by lightning and collapsed. The girls were terrified and started to pray. Huddled in my cot, with my hands over my ears, I slipped into another world. The darkness was drawing me in; I had never felt so alone. The thought of gliding across the years without seeing Mother again frightened me. I cried all night.

Before I left, Pure Intelligence gave back the box of belongings I had entrusted to her when I arrived. I secured the necklace of pearls and jade about my neck, put earrings in my ears, and put on three gold bracelets. I was heartbroken to find that the pleated skirt, the silk shirt, and the scarlet tunic with the bird design had all shrunk. I had grown.

With one hand I held Law of Emptiness by a length of string attached round her neck, and with the other I shook hands with Pure Intelligence. My tears flowed on and on. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her tunic and stopped by the monastery gate.

Buddha speaks through every moment of pain. Listen to his words. Your destiny lies elsewhere. Forget me.

She turned away and started to run. Her grey dress melted into the trees.

Farewell, monastery! Time will devour you, and you will be turned to dust. Farewell, Pure Intelligence! You will soon die, and we shall see each other again in another life. Farewell, my friends the monkeys, the tigers, and the pandas. You will become carrion, and only the mountains will remain.

They will watch over the Buddha’s enigmatic smile.


Cartwheels rumbling.

Coachmen shouting.

Huddled on my cot, I drifted in and out of sleep. The endless earth unfurled as I traveled onward. In my dreams, I was straying through the belly of the mountains with a torch in my hand. A succession of frescoes: green, mauve, yellow, ochre, indigo, images of the gods, the celestial kings, and the bodhisattvas appeared and disappeared. Birds called, wild cats laughed, dancers tiptoed through the clouds scattering a shower of flowers. In the depths of the cave, I could see a statue of Buddha lying down, taking up the entire valley. He had one hand under his cheek but was not asleep. He was the only breath of life, his vast body weightless as a feather ready to fly away. Not the faintest rustle of wind, not one insect cry, not one drop of water falling. The world was silent before his state of bliss. Suddenly Buddha smiled at me. I woke with a start. I no longer knew where I was or what my name was.

I had lost Law of Emptiness. The little goat had disappeared without a trace; the mountains had reclaimed her from me. I had gone there almost naked, and now I was emerging with nothing.

Everything is dreams and illusion, Pure Intelligence had told me.

WE ABANDONED THE earth path. The wind filled the sails, and the huge boat was like a whole town as it traveled down the River Long.

The banks stretched out, mountains loomed up and dispersed into the mist. Fishermen surrounded by cormorants, groups of little houses on stilts, villages clinging to the side of the cliffs and fortified towns glided past. We threw anchor in ports that smelled of grilled fish. Hundreds of boats buzzed around us, offering cloths, furniture, clothes, vegetables, and young girls. At night the reflection of the moon would scatter over the water, a myriad of silver flowers flutter away. There were black boats covered in oiled cloth and red lanterns at the top of their masts; they emitted the wail of musical instruments, women’s laughter, and ugly voices of drunken men.

The river was growing wider. The torrents, no longer eager to rejoin the sea, were slowing down. There were countless vessels, still larger and more magnificent than ours, traveling in both directions.

The journey ended when the season of green plums began. The rain trickled and did not stop. Water streamed over the roofs in the town of Jing; it seeped down the walls and crawled over books, leaving its flower-shaped tracks. Servant women dried damp clothes over fires fed with sandalwood bark. I studied the Four Classics with a private tutor. The cook heaved me up onto her donkey’s back and gladly brought me along on her trips to the market.

In the narrow streets paved with black stone, the servants’ feet grew red in their wooden clogs. The whole town came together in the floating market on the river, their rain hats pulled down over coats woven from bamboo leaves. The boats bustled and nudged one another on the water. The cook bartered fiercely: She could feign anger or improvise with flattery. The fishermen, beaten back by her eloquence, would throw us fish that squirmed through the air.

To console me for the loss of Law of Emptiness, Father gave me a horse and permission to go through the gateway into the side court. I went into the exercise yard where soldiers trained for battle. The animal was as tall as a mountain, spewing hot breath through great nostrils that quivered. All of a sudden he sneezed: terrified, I backed away and fell flat on my backside. He shook his head up and down and laughed, showing off his yellow teeth.

I called him King of Tigers. Up on his back, the world was at my feet. When he went into a gallop, my body melted away, my thoughts scattered in the wind, and I became a warrior on his flying fortress, a goddess on her winged chariot. At last, days of happiness had arrived like the midday sun. Only a few sorrows flitted across the skies of a childhood that knew no suffering.

My sisters and I had private tutors who gave us lessons in painting, calligraphy, music, and dance. When she was twelve, Eldest Sister Purity was as beautiful as the dawn breaking over the River Long. Having been forbidden any exposure to the sun by the doctors because her skin was so delicate, she preferred candlelight, and she would read and write all day long. Her poems already had the rhythm and resonance of a more mature mind. While I scratched my head trying to find obscure words, indispensable ornamentation for my prosaic compositions, sentences would flow from her swift hand in elegant pairs.

Little sister was the mirror image of me. She was seven years old, and she had the sparkling vitality of a young animal. When Father set out to inspect garrisons and other districts, Mother would shut herself away from us in prayer. We would slip away from the clouded gaze of our ancient governesses and explore the Front Quarters. The imposing pavilions seemed to reach the sky. The white walls bore calligraphy in black ink, spelling out the rules of conduct for imperial officials. The hall shimmered with gold. The pillars supported vast vaulted roofs. Father, who was responsible for the paddy-fields and trading and who meted out supreme justice, was the most powerful man in the region!

In the eighth year of Pure Contemplation, Father gave a party for my ninth birthday. The gifts accumulated into great hills of treasure in the pavilion where the reception was held. Father gave me an armor breastplate in red leather with black laces, a suede hat decorated with a goose head, and a small bow bound with rattan. A general sent me a young falcon and three pups. The dignitaries of the province paid me intoxicating compliments. Blushing and delighted, I made a pretense of shyness as I welcomed the last days of my innocence. The rustle of silk, the tumbling rhythms of music, laughter, shouts, whinnying horses…these were the crowning moments of the beautiful firework display that had been my childhood.

Our infant years are like cruising on a cloud: suspended on high, the celestial landscape seems to unfold so slowly, motionless and eternal, while we flit past a thousand plains and mountains on the ground below.

My journey was already coming to an end.

One morning a few months after this party that dazzled me still, a carriage came to collect Eldest Sister. She emerged weeping from the house, dressed like a goddess, and left forever.

The previous year she had been betrothed to a boy from the local nobility. I had admired her dowry with its crimson lacquered trunks that took up an entire pavilion. As I counted her dishes of jade, gold, and silver; her sheets of velvet and satin; her countless dresses; and her embroidered shoes, I even felt a tinge of envy. I did not understand what marriage was. Only after she left did I realize that a harmonious world in which everything had its rightful place had just collapsed. Later Purity came back to the maternal home with her husband. Just as I had feared—with her fringe lifted off her face, her eyebrows completely plucked, her cheeks powdered, and her hair in a topknot—she was no longer my sister. She had become a woman!

In that ninth year of Pure Contemplation, there were weeds growing in the garden of my heart, and I was a melting pot of scorn and insolence. I had read A History of the Han Dynasty and Poems of the Lands of Chu. I had studied The Virtue and Piety of Women. I was well versed in arithmetic, calligraphy, painting, and playing the zither and the game of go. This image of a well-brought up young lady irritated me: I wanted to be like those barefoot adolescents with their trousers rolled up who hurled their nets into the river.

On the sixth day of the fifth moon, the retired emperor died. Imperial messengers spread the grim news to the four corners of the empire. Surprised by their mournful announcement, Father collapsed. When his officers rushed to support him, his eyes rolled back in their sockets, and he struggled as if possessed by some invisible demon. As his thrashing became calmer, he was taken into the inner quarters. Father never awoke. He had left this world.

Doctors could not diagnose the mysterious illness to which he had succumbed. They concluded that the late emperor had called up his warrior: He was to escort him as he ascended to the celestial kingdom. The imperial Court soon confirmed this theory, and, touched by this proof of loyalty to his master, the reigning emperor conferred on Father the posthumous title of Minister of Rites.

I wandered from one room to another in that unreal world, understanding nothing. Father’s body lay on a bed of ice. With his smooth features and half-closed eyes, he looked deep in thought. Mother wept as she took off all her jewelry. Behind her, men and women could be heard wailing. The house was draped with linen and white hemp, transforming it into an immaculate temple.

A few days later, two officials arrived from the Capital borne by exhausted horses. The servants knelt as they passed. The officials wept as they climbed the stairs, then threw themselves before the funeral bed and howled with pain. I watched these black-bearded strangers through a window and recognized my half-brothers, the sons of Father’s late wife.

Tears, cries, and wails. We observed the ceremonial procedures: bathing him, calling upon his soul, filling his mouth,² the smaller clothing ceremony,³ the great clothing ceremony,⁴ laying him in his coffin, and making daily offerings. I followed meekly, obedient, and dazed. Imperial representatives, envoys from the world of high politics, relations, and local dignitaries filed past